Friday, January 19

A Basketful of "Rubbish"

It was only after years of tenacity and longsuffering that Konstantin von Tischendorf was able to discover one of the oldest complete copies of the New Testament and thus transform Biblical scholarship for the modern era. Born in Saxony on January 18, 1815 he became a Bible scholar who decided to search for old Bible manuscripts so he could produce an edition of the Bible which was as close to the original manuscripts as possible.

In 1843, he visited Italy looking for Bible manuscripts, and in 1844 he traveled throughout Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, and the Middle East. In May of 1844 he was staying in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, which had been founded by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. He noticed in the hall of the monastery a large basket filled with old and tattered parchments. The librarian said they were to be burned as rubbish and two other similar basketfuls had already been burned. Tischendorf looked through the basket and found 129 leaves of a manuscript of the Old Testament in Greek. He enthusiasm was visibly stirred, for this manuscript was the oldest Biblical text he had ever seen, probably dating from the 4th century.

The monks became very suspicious and began carefully guarding the fragments. Tischendorf was not able to see the manuscripts again until he revisited the monastery in 1859. On this day—the last day of his visit—the steward pulled down an old manuscript of the Greek New Testament from a shelf filled with old coffee cups. It was like the pages once seen in the trash bin. Tischendorf persuaded the monastery to give the manuscript to the Tsar of Russia, the sponsor of Tischendorf's travels and a former benefactor of the monastery.

The ancient book became known as Codex Sinaiticus. It includes a large section of the Old Testament and the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament. When the Communists took over Russia in 1917, they had no interest in the manuscript so it was sold to the British Museum on Christmas Day, 1933.


Mark McFadden said...

It makes one wonder what manuscripts were burned. However, by God's gracious providence we do not know.

Good post brother. I learned some things.

David said...

Dr. Grant, I'm curious where you got the information about the monks giving him the Codex. Most sources say that he got permission to examine it, and then made off with it in the middle of the night on a fast camel. That is also the story told and written in the monastery itself (which I just visited). Given the Eastern Orthodox Churches' general disregard for scripture one wouldn't be too surprised if they were burning and giving away old manuscripts, but I would love to know your source.

Many thanks for all your insightful posts! This is one of the few blogs I read in its entirety.

gileskirk said...

I have a really fine book that I picked up in the Brittish Museum store on Codex Sinaiticus by Roger W.T. Glenn. It was largely from that volume that I was gleaning when I wrote an article on textual veracity last year--and from which this post is excerpted.